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The Daily Tar Heel

Senators Hear Fiscal Concerns

Education leaders from across the state said they want flexibility to distribute budget cuts as they see fit.

Education officials from all over the state and from all three branches of public education -- K-12 schools, community colleges and the UNC system -- aired their concerns in a three-hour session as most of the Senate listened intently.

The N.C. General Assembly is in the midst of building a budget for the 2002-03 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Due to both sagging revenue collections and escalating costs in several state programs, legislators are facing a budget hole of about $2 billion.

With few legislators willing to stomach a tax increase, lawmakers have begun to consider cuts to all corners of the state's $14 billion budget.

The Senate is expected to approve its plan on how to fill the fiscal hole in the next few weeks, at which point the plan will head to the N.C. House for approval.

Lawmakers have announced that they could have to cut about $695 million from education to balance the budget.

But Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said that before legislators made any final decisions on the budget they wanted to hear from as many education officials as possible.

Hundreds of education officials from across the state -- including school superintendents, community college presidents, UNC-system Board of Governors members and chancellors -- flocked to Raleigh on Tuesday on only a couple of days' notice to have their concerns heard by the state's most influential decision-makers.

After meeting with the Senate, many of those same education officials also met with Gov. Mike Easley, who proposed a much smaller cut to education in a budget he sent to the legislature last month. But Easley's budget is also reliant on a lottery, which the legislature has yet to approve.

Several long-time senators said they do not remember ever seeing a similar gathering during their time in the legislature.

About two dozen education officials spoke to the Senate as dozens of others looked on and occasionally applauded their coworkers' impassioned pleas.

The message that resonated from all the speakers was nearly identical: Don't cut too deeply in education, and give individual agencies the flexibility to implement the cuts as they see fit.

UNC-system President Molly Broad, who was one of the first education officials to speak Tuesday, told legislators that it would be especially difficult for the UNC system to deal with deep budget cuts because of the cuts the system already has sustained during the last couple of years.

"The (UNC system's) capacity to absorb non-personnel cuts has been largely exhausted," Broad said. "The quality (of the system) can be diminished or eroded in very short order (by deep budget cuts)."

Broad's statement was later echoed by Martin Lancaster, president of the N.C. Community College system.

"There is no question that in the community colleges there is no fat to be eliminated," Lancaster said. "We gave up the fat two years ago. We gave up the muscle last year. This year we're being asked to give up limbs."

N.C. Agricultural & Technical State University Chancellor James Renick called on legislators to go as far as to raise taxes to spare education from deep cuts.

"If at the end of the day, we have to cut to the reasonable limit, our elected officials should bite the bullet and raise taxes or we will mortgage our children's future," Renick said.

While no formal conclusion was reached at the meeting, Basnight assured those in attendance that their presence will help lawmakers make the best decision possible for education in North Carolina.

Basnight said, "You have helped your budget today; that is a promise."

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